Spicy beef, Orkney scallops and a festive feast
We've got an eclectic bunch of dishes for you to try this month with only the slightest whisper of the "X" word twinkling among them. It might be December but that isn't stopping our lot from stuffing their faces with salads, seafood and tapas. Price points, too, are as disparate as our cholesterol levels with a humble dish from the newest chippy in Sale at nine quid contrasted with a £22.50 scallop starter from The Bull & Bear.
Here, in our opinion, are the best things to eat in Manchester in December.
Berenjenas fritas con miel, Abeja (£6)
Most people turn to roast dinners, soups and stews to warm the cockles when the weather turns, but I find that closing my eyes and dreaming of much warmer climes really does the trick for me. Hatch is only round the corner from my apartment in town and while it can be rather chilly sat on a wooden bench underneath the Mancunian Way, it’s always sunny in the tiny tapas bar hiding behind the stage.
The lovely Ana runs Abeja, and the warmth of southern Spain just radiates from her as she presents us with plate after plate of homemade dishes from her region of Andalucía. Croquetas are filled with heavenly Serrano ham and cheese and pork cheek sits in a silky sauce next to a tumble of her fabulous patatas bravas but I’m here for the aubergine. Otherwise known as berenjenas fritas con miel, crispy fried slithers of aubergine are golden, subtly crunchy and light and drizzled with sugarcane molasses. The love story of salt and sweet is a tale as old as time, but the almost bitterness of the molasses keeps my tastebuds on their toes. Sophie Rahnema @sophieshahla
Abeja inside HATCH, 103 Oxford Rd, Manchester M1 7ED
Roast venison, Jerusalem artichoke puree, braised red cabbage, pommes Anna, royal sauce, The Creameries (£60 as part of a 10+ course festive menu)
'Tis the season for pigs in blankets. They’re oinking their way into everything from pies to pizzas - I've definitely had one on a cocktail at some point too. It’s all a bit samey for a season that’s supposed to be special. Xmas menus have a novelty that wears thin very quickly for me.
But when you get invited to Mary Ellen McTague’s festive preview, you can guarantee there won’t be a bacon-wrapped chipolata in sight. McTague is one of the most accomplished (and humble) chefs in our region. Take this dish of venison loin with stewed leg served with braised red cabbage and a quenelle of (my all-time favourite veg) Jerusalem artichoke puree drizzled with a sticky bone reduction. It feels like a dish that a gathering of shimmering forest nymphs might serve in a clearing at Yuletide, all earthy and rich and meaty. A little heap of “royal sauce” made from sultanas, chocolate and some other ingredients I didn’t quite catch, catapults it right out of the forest and onto the table of a monarch. The menu also notably includes The Creameries' famously wonderful bread served with cavolo nero rippled butter - cabbage ripple beats raspberry ripple any day for me. If you're looking for a genuinely special Christmas meal out, the whole shebang here from oysters to chestnut tart is an absolute delight. Kelly Bishop @keliseating
The Creameries 406 Wilbraham Rd, Manchester M21 0SD
Gluten-free white chocolate and raspberry brownie, Ezra & Gil (£3.25)
Sometimes when people do the breakfast coffee run in the office and they ask me what I want, instead of choosing something that I know is on the menu, I sort of reel off some attributes of a mythical thing that I wish existed. On one particular morning this month, as well as the trademark millennial flat white with oat milk, I really fancied something sweet. I didn’t want the hassle of flaky pastry, but instead something indulgently chocolatey with some contrasting sweetness and a bit of fruit to make me feel less guilty.
The above brownie from Ezra & Gil is what I got. A square of satisfaction that hit all the notes I needed it to. A soft, slightly chewy slab with a welcome layer of raspberry tartness and a creamy drizzle of white chocolate. We are truly blessed to have an Ezra & Gil on this side of town. Davey Brett @dbretteats
Ezra & Gil, 49 Peter St, Manchester M2 3NG
Spicy beef salad, Evelyn’s Café Bar (£14.90)
Salad in the winter is usually a big no from me, I’d rather have an uber-steamy bowl of ramen or a homemade sausage roll. However, I recently found myself with a craving for something fresh and five-a-day worthy, so I set out on the hunt for a bowl of green goodness that would leave me feeling like Manchester’s answer to Kourtney Kardashian (with less of an aversion to anything containing gluten or more than 200 calories).
Evelyn’s Café Bar seemed like a safe spot after finding a superfood bowl and smoked coconut caesar on their menu. I chose a spicy beef salad with beansprouts, edamame, cucumber, chilli, shallot, mixed herbs, and toasted cashews. The seared spicy beef gave the whole thing that warming, nose-running spice without leaving me gagging for a glass of milk. The salad also had that winning combination of textures as the crunch of beansprouts and toasted cashews was matched by well-dressed cucumber and mixed herbs. Leaving the greenery and foliage on their plant-filled industrial walls, Evelyn’s served up a salad which didn’t feel like a whole load of lettuce with some dressing and a piece of protein. Instead, I was left feeling Insta-blogger-like and wholly satisfied. Ellie-Jo Johnstone @elliejoj
Evelyn's, 44 Tib St, Manchester M4 1NB
Royal sea bream, Hawksmoor (£21)
I feel 2021 has been my year of the fish. I seem to have been putting them top spot in my dish of the month regularly. Then again if you get a good fish dish, you become King of the Sea. That’s how I felt with the Royal sea bream sampled in the soothing twilight of the Hawksmoor lighting scheme a week or so ago. Why the regal moniker though? It comes from the various appellations which all lead back to the name of "gilt-head bream"; the fish in its natural state seems to wear a sort of crown apparently. Hawksmoor’s version of this monarch of the deep is baked in paper with garlic, rosemary and chilli. It’s a Hawksmoor trademark dish, nothing too fancy, nothing too elaborate, just supreme quality of ingredients cooked to nigh perfection. The flesh of the fish is lush and falls off the bone in thick white flakes with surprisingly rich flavour. Of course, the chilli, rosemary and chilli bring something to the game but really it was all about the sheer quality of the fish itself and the execution of the cooking. I’ve had some good fish dishes this year, some excellent plaice ones in particular, but this one is the standout. Jonathan Schofield @JonathSchofield
Hawksmoor, 186 Deansgate, Manchester M3 3WB
Roasted hand-dived Orkney scallop with pickled Crown Prince pumpkin and smoked butter sauce, The Bull & Bear (£22.50)
The first few months of Tom Kerridge’s restaurant in the Stock Exchange Hotel were a bit hit and miss. Just before the pandemic got a grip, Jacqui Roberts took over as General Manager, a fearless lady who, sensibly, disapproves of me. She does know how to get the best out of her staff, mind you. I did a walk-in one Tuesday lunchtime in November. The menu reads better than before, there’s more balance to it. It genuinely feels right.
I started with a scallop. It was a big bugger. It should be, given the price. Chefs have a habit of describing scallops as “hand dived”, Generally, they’re telling porkies. Kerridge’s head chef, Connor Black, isn’t. This scallop was extraordinary and not just because it was the size of a satsuma. Conner has worked for Kerridge since he was 15. Still only 25, he’s remarkably young to get this gig and the scallop dish is his own. It is exceptional. I took a chunk out of it before pouring on the smoked butter sauce. Unless treated by a master of the art, smoking stuff tends to ruin ingredients. This big hunky bivalve was beautifully cooked with strips of candied fruit (I think) on top and sharp, but not too sharp, slices of pickled pumpkin underneath countering the sweetness of both the fruit and the scallop itself. It’s quite high-end Chinese in its own way.
Next, I braved ruining this masterpiece. Gingerly pouring the sauce over the bruiser, I was worried. Would I be over-egging the bivalve? Oh my, oh no - the two joined hands and sang an aria. This is a banger. I can’t wait to go again. Gordo @Gordomanchester
The Bull & Bear 4 Norfolk St, Manchester M2 1DW
Baked Teriyaki Salmon, Off The Hook (£9)
I'm as big a fan of fish and chips as the next gal - pearly flakes of fish, crunchy batter and vinegar-soaked chips is the food of the gods on the right day. But on the wrong day, this lighter version is a welcome option at new chippy Off The Hook in Sale. The salmon is baked until the skin is shatteringly crisp while somehow keeping the flesh perfectly firm and pink, then served up simply with a piquant red cabbage slaw and generous amounts of flatbread. But don't worry, they do a bang-up job of the traditional version too, next time it's the right day. Lucy Tomlinson @hotcupoftea
Off The Hook 8 Northenden Road, Sale, M33 3BR
Read next: The best things to drink in Manchester in December
Read again: Superbowl: 10 of the best soups in Manchester
Don't miss out
Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email.